WHEN Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant in 1864, he could not have foreseen that the gesture would spark an environmental renaissance across America, resulting in 59 stunning National Parks today.
Nor could he have predicted the sage decision by Aer Lingus in April to establish direct flights between Dublin and thirsty San Francisco, which ironically has an Irishman to thank for the bulk of its water supply. Yosemite is perhaps unusual in that O’Shaughnessy Dam is one of the few obvious incursions by humans into an otherwise relatively untouched natural paradise.
It’s not just burnt out yuppies that will cherish the 1,100 square miles of Wi-Fi free wilderness at this World Heritage Site. Visitors constitute a melting pot of outdoor enthusiasts and cultures, but not African-Americans apparently. Well, so said Oprah back in 2010, when she filmed a TV special at the park to encourage future visits. As I discovered on my own family trip, the same can be said of the Irish.
While several routes jealously vie as gatekeeper to the park, pitch black Wawona Tunnel is distinctive, a worthy precursor to a spectacular panorama that makes Dublin’s Phoenix Park look like a 1970s garden centre. The imposing peaks of El Capitan and Half Dome rush up to meet you at Tunnel View, giving way in turn to the lushly forested Yosemite Valley and the spray of Bridalveil Fall. For the uninitiated, this first glimpse borders on a spiritual awakening.
Yosemite is enjoying a resurgence following a protracted PR disaster. The third largest fire in California’s history burned insatiably from August to October 2013, consuming 400 square miles courtesy of an illegal campfire. While the flames never licked the main tourist hub, the Rim Fire was particularly unwelcome given the park was still reeling from a deadly Hanta Virus outbreak the previous summer. Killing three people and infecting ten, it’s sparked an enduring legacy of fear that Park Ranger Kari Cobb seems determined to extinguish.
Wildfire season tends to be reluctantly accepted as a much-loathed trade-off for living in the Golden State. Yet it is actually essential to life in Yosemite, albeit not on the scale of the Rim Fire, admits Cobb. Prescribed fires are lit regularly and natural fires allowed to burn within reason, all in the name of preserving the ecosystem. Hanta Virus is granted no such quarter, and the park has gone to great lengths to ensure its demise. Visitor numbers have rebounded accordingly.
Hiking is the perfect way to unravel this vast territory, with a variety of trails to suit all levels. We found the Mirror Lake Trail to be particularly beautiful. At times, the 8km loop felt like an ambush scene from The Last of the Mohicans, with much of the path overshadowed by dense forest canopy and enveloped in a profound silence. Lower Yosemite Falls is an easy-going 1.6km loop, the Upper Falls more strenuous at nearly 12km, but both allow you to drink in North America’s tallest waterfall.
A free shuttle system makes getting about easy, and has paid dividends by reducing car accidents (motorists become dumbstruck by the scenery). Yosemite Village boasts a museum, bookstore and the photography of national treasure Ansel Adams. It also has communal showers and a pool, as well as Degnan’s Deli, which is better stocked than some Irish supermarkets.
The weather is notoriously unpredictable, but count on low to freezing temperatures at night. This has its advantages. Smores, an American delicacy consisting of marshmallow and chocolate, sandwiched by graham crackers and roasted over a fire, simply taste sensational in the bitter cold. Mind the crumbs though. Giant metal food lockers at every camping spot alert you to the park’s long-term residents — bears. Yosemite is also teeming with squirrels as well as deer, which are liable to roam in droves through the campgrounds, clearly on their version of the school run.
A visit to Mariposa Grove can only be described as humbling. Housing some of the tallest trees in the world, hundreds of giant sequoias stretch upwards for an eternity, proudly sporting the charred battle wounds of fires past. The hidden gem however is Tuolumne Meadows in the northern part of the park. Its higher elevation allows visitors to stand virtually toe-to-toe with waterfalls and cliffs, a perspective many never experience. It also offers respite from the summer crowds of Yosemite Valley.
Funds and fortitude will determine your digs. My brother-in-law fled the family motorhome in favour of a sturdy tent, suffering no ill effects thanks to a nuclear winter style sleeping bag. Equally, Oprah was not just all show, with Cobb confirming that she roughed it. The same cannot be said of James Franco, who is currently finalising an independent movie called Yosemite. To rest up from filming the story of a father and son who find a body on their camping trip, Franco chose the Ahwahnee Hotel. The name roughly translates as “place of a gaping mouth”, which is rather apt as this is exactly how you’ll react to the $500 per night price tag.
This stately yet rather spooky 1920s hotel should not be overlooked however, with its massive stone fireplaces, tapestries, intimate nooks and dramatic setting. Have a drink or splurge for dinner (mains $28-$46), though don’t be surprised if it seems impossible to shake an impending sense of doom upon entering the Great Lounge. Stanley Kubrick, director of The Shining, modelled much of the interior of the Overlook Hotel on the Ahwahnee. Wander the upper floors at your peril.
Directors continue to be inspired by Yosemite, with Disney’s Planes 2: Fire and Rescue due out this summer. Franco’s tale is not outlandish however. Yosemite is as unforgiving as it is unparalleled. Injury or disorientation amongst overly ambitious hikers is common, and more than 100 climbing accidents occur each year. In 2011, three young people died when they were swept over Vernal Fall. Despite the warning signs, we still saw people scrambling over barriers to land perilously close to the deluge, in search of the perfect selfie. All the while breathtaking photos are on tap by just pointing and clicking.
When to go depends on your leanings. Hiking is popular April-October. All seasons may appeal to photographers, but rock climbing is typical from September through early December, and from late February to mid-June. Spring or early summer is best for gushing waterfalls, when snowmelt is at its peak.
Very few Irish visit, according to Cobb. This is peculiar given the respective twinning of Cork and Dublin with San Francisco and San Jose, both within easy striking distance of Yosemite, not to mention the growing number of indirect and direct flights to the area, home to a vibrant Irish community.
Immense succour from the daily grind lies in wait at Yosemite. Be a pioneer and select it as a standalone destination, or strike a balance by combining the visit with a city break.
Fly Dublin to San Francisco from €600pp mid-September 2014 with Aer Lingus.
www.Cruiseamerica.com has motorhomes from $1,200-$1,600/week. Yosemite’s 13 campgrounds are in constant demand, with seven on a reservation system and the remainder first-come first-served. See http://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/camping.htm
Tour America offers return flights to San Francisco in September 2014 via Dublin, including three nights at Hotel Triton and two nights at Tenaya Lodge (Yosemite) and car rental for €1559 pp (based on two sharing).
Sunway has a 10 night fly-drive via Cork or Dublin, taking in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Yosemite with a final night in Santa Monica and accommodation based on 3* hotels for €1515 pp including car hire (September 2014 based on two sharing).
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved